A Great Russian Writer in the Communist Cauldron

The Foundation Pit

by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson, and with an afterword by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson
New York Review Books, 224 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Soul and Other Stories

by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Katia Grigoruk, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman, and with an afterword by John Berger
New York Review Books, 335 pp., $15.95 (paper)
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Andrey Platonov, Voronezh, 1922

For literature, perhaps the most precious dividend from the collapse of the Soviet system has been the discovery of previously censored or unknown manuscripts by the great writer Andrey Platonov. Joseph Brodsky put him on a par with Joyce, Musil, and Kafka. Yet in his own lifetime in Russia he was published only intermittently, and then usually subjected to the fiercest criticism by the literary authorities, including Stalin, while many of his most important works, such as his long novel Chevengur (1929) and his masterpiece The Foundation Pit (1930), remained unpublished until the relaxation of censorship in the glasnost period of the late 1980s.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a steady flow of new Platonov texts: the unfinished novel Happy Moscow came out in 1991; a complete version of The Foundation Pit appeared in 1994 (earlier editions had been cut and bowdlerized); the complete text of the long story “Dzhan” (“Soul”), which had been published in a censored form in the 1960s, appeared only in 1999. Letters, notebooks, unfinished stories, and texts that were written by Platonov “for the drawer” continue to appear in literary journals in Russia.

It is from these Russian publications that Robert Chandler and his wife Elizabeth have produced their many translations, including these two latest publications by New York Review Books, in which they have brilliantly dealt with the challenges of rendering into readable English the extraordinary quality of Platonov’s prose. As Brodsky wrote, it is precisely Platonov’s use of language that makes him such a revolutionary writer, and one so dangerous to the Soviet regime, “because he attacks the very carrier of millenarian sensibility in Russian society: the language itself.”

To get readers immediately acquainted with Platonov’s unique style, this is how he sounds in the opening lines of The Foundation Pit in the Chandlers’ translation:

On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence. His dismissal notice stated that he was being removed from production on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.

The Foundation Pit is a dystopian work—a distorted mirror image of the Soviet “production novel” of the 1920s and 1930s—but it would be wrong to see Platonov as an anti-Soviet writer or a satirist. Born in 1899, he came of age with the revolution of October 1917, and remained a true believer in the Soviet system, despite his many doubts about Stalin’s murderous policies.

Platonov was the pen name of Andrey Platonovich Klimentov. His father was a metal worker for the railway in an industrial suburb of Voronezh, a place between the city and the open countryside some two hundred miles south of Moscow, and the tension between the old world of the peasant village and the new world of Soviet industry features prominently in Platonov …

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